Refuge Volume Two: The Ingathering will be published next week. Here’s a preview of the first few chapters. Read Chapter One here, and follow the links to the next few chapters.
This is the sequel to Refuge Volume One: The Order Master, which you can preview here. The Refuge series is about the conflict between two alien species, the Droon and the Andol, who have destroyed each other in a war and then, through magical arts, reincarnated as human beings, making the Earth their new battleground.
The Pike Place Market teemed with people, especially in the front part where the bronze pig kept watch and the fish merchants juggled salmon for the crowd. Claire bumped and weaved through the mob past the sea smell and the noise, making her way towards the fruit and vegetable sellers further back. Her Starbucks latte with soymilk felt warm tucked close to her body to avoid spilling. The sky was gray (as usual) but the rain fell in a light mist, which to a Seattleite wasn’t even Real Rain.
Claire had popped her meds that morning automatically, like a clockwork mechanism, and felt the drowsiness that sometimes followed, which the coffee helped to counter. She also felt the crowd around her as a threat of suffocation, depression looming on the edges of her mind, but knew something to do about that. Closing her eyes briefly and breathing rhythmically for a few seconds while the crowd eddied around her slim, short body, she opened her second sight and felt the minds of the people. As expected: annoyance at the crowds, amusement at the sights, concentration on the desired whatever or directionless browsing through the cacophony of goods, a flash of anger from a child kept from darting under a counter, smoldering pain from a woman whose husband was cheating on her, about what she expected in a crowd of shoppers and tourists.
She opened her eyes and saw the auras flashing and bumping and blending, multi-hued cues to personality, health, and mood, but Claire always got more just from feeling the minds around her than visually. The colors were pretty to look at, though.
As the magic at the base of her spine found an outlet, the threat of depression receded a little, but she knew it would come back. It always did, despite the medication, and using her magic only helped a little, enough to let her get through college, but not enough so far to make a relationship work for more than a month or two.
Still, a little help would do this morning. She pressed on through the crowd, which thinned as she came to the back portion of the Market where the shops she wanted stood. First the fruit and vegetable stand for a bag of apples and a couple of star fruit, then the tea shop where she picked up a sack of Earl Gray and popped it into the fruit bag, and finally her favorite bakery, where she scored a loaf of dense, nut-packed multi-grain yummy.
Loaded down with success, Claire wove her way through the crowds to the bus stop where she caught a bus to her Capitol Hill apartment. She had time to eat something, shower, and study for a bit before taking another bus to the University and her film class at two in the afternoon.
The time went quickly, and Claire jumped when the alarm sounded. She tossed Shakespeare to the side and threw her bag over her shoulder, zipped out her front door and locked it behind her, and had just turned towards the elevator door when it opened.
Four men stepped out of the elevator. One of them looked at her and smiled. She didn’t like the smile much. She didn’t recognize any of them, but the smiling guy seemed to know her. They were four white men, somewhere between their twenties and their forties, in good shape, not especially good looking or ugly, nothing remarkable about them, but —
The second sight came on her and she reeled. The aura that sprang to her view looked as if the men were surrounded by a spinning cloud of jagged, broken glass sparkling against a night-dark background. She could feel the malice of their minds. Only in her hallucinations and nightmares had she ever before sensed such pure, toxic evil. Claire’s breath caught. She backed away.
The lead man drew a knife. “You’re luckier than you know, girl,” he said. “We don’t dare take chances with the likes of you. That means you’ll die in seconds instead of years.”
Claire ran toward the stairs at the end of the hall. The men ran after.
At the stairway door she turned and kicked out at the lead man, the one with the knife drawn. Years of martial arts training came to her assistance and she tripped him. Her hand on his knife-arm shifted his motion enough to ram his head into the wall. He fell, dropping the knife. Claire picked it up.
But the others came right behind. One of them thrust another knife at her heart. She twisted to avoid it but the man moved so fast she could only deflect the blow slightly. It sliced into Claire’s side. She cried out and backed through the stairway door, closing it behind her. She jammed the knife into the hinge and broke off the handle, then turned and ran up the stairs. Why up? Why not down? The thought occurred to her after she’d already gone a floor, but by then it was too late; the knife blade in the door hinge wouldn’t hold back her pursuers long.
Out onto the roof. The breeze stirred her hair. Her side hurt. Her fingers felt sticky. She could smell the blood. She could also hear running footsteps in the stairwell. Where could she go?
She reached the edge of the building just as the door to the stairwell opened behind her and her three remaining pursuers emerged from it. Gasping, she looked over the roof edge. There was nothing below except an open dumpster full of garbage, three floors down.
The men ran towards her. She had nowhere else to go. Over the side and down, feet-first into the pile of refuse. She felt something twist in her leg. She blacked out momentarily.
Then she pulled herself out of the dumpster and limped away down the street with no idea where to go.
Blood seeped between Claire’s fingers where she held onto her side. It oozed through her shirt and trickled down her skin and onto her pants. The breeze stirred her dark brown hair and she felt light-headed.
They were still following her, those men. She felt sure of it. They wanted to kill her. She had no idea why. She had never done any of them any harm. She had never seen any of them before! Who were they?
Claire moved as quickly as she could away from her apartment building. The day still hung heavy with dense Seattle clouds, although it wasn’t raining at the moment. She could feel her pursuers following her, delayed by her jump from the roof but not deterred. Where could she go? She was just one young Asian woman in a city full of them, one small figure winding through the streets and alleyways, easily lost, surely. Somehow, though, they came on, following her as if with radar.
They found her in an alley, not a cul-de-sac but she limped and clutched at her side. She couldn’t run. As they advanced, she fell to her knees. A trail of red ran down her side. She was weak from blood loss and seemed to have injured her leg jumping off the roof into the dumpster.
“Who are you guys?” she said, her eyes darting from one implacable face to another.
“Your death,” one of them said.
“Why? What did I do to you?”
“Nothing yet. But we’d like to keep it that way.” He drew his knife and stepped forward. “I’ll make this quick.”
A shot rang out. Blood burst from the man’s chest. He fell, an expression of surprise on his face, dropping his knife. Two more guns sang their songs and the other two pursuers also fell, groaning or silent. Five men stepped from the shadows. Four of them ran to the three fallen killers and made sure of them with knives. The fifth, tall, thin, and Hispanic, with dark hair long but well cut and a closely-trimmed mustache, squatted by Claire. “How bad is it?” he said.
“Richard?” Claire said.
“Yes. Let me look at that injury. It looks like it might be pretty bad.”
“Uh. Sure.” Claire moved her hand.
Richard pulled her bloody shirt away from the wound. “No arteries cut, but we’d best get you to a safe place and tend to it. I have some AB and sutures at home.”
“Maybe I should go to the hospital.”
“I don’t recommend that, Claire. Another hit team will be sent once the people who sent that one learn that it failed. You need to disappear from sight.”
“I don’t understand.”
Richard sighed. “No, of course you don’t. I’m afraid you’ve been found by a nightmare. They’re the whole planet’s nightmare, and we — these men and I, and others — are trying to stop them.”
Claire shook her head. “That’s crazy talk, Richard. I’m supposed to be the crazy one.”
“You aren’t crazy, Claire. It’s just your magic.”
“Richard, my magic is all that helps the craziness. Medication helps some, but without the magic I’d be completely zotty.”
Richard smiled. “Yes. That’s what I mean. The craziness happens because your magic needs more training. It was worse before you had any training at all, right? But that can wait, Claire. Let’s get you to a safe place, and then we can talk. There are so many things you don’t know, and it’s obvious now that you need to know.”
He scooped her up in his arms and stood, carrying her. The others followed him to a car, leaving the bodies of her would-be killers behind. They drove quietly away, no one noticing them as the sirens sounded behind.
Sutured and drugged on pain-killers, resting in bed, Claire felt well enough to talk. She sipped miso soup that Richard made for her. She smiled. He was so nice. But then, he was also a killer, wasn’t he? That came as a surprise: her pharmacist leading a team that fought a battle to the death with mysterious assassins.
She ran slim, brown fingers through her hair. It felt dirty. She wanted a shower, but probably a sponge bath would make better sense, what with the bandages and all. Maybe she could wash her hair in a basin or something. Unless the bandages were waterproof. Were they?
“Richard,” she said.
“I know. You want some answers.”
“All right, but I warn you, this is going to sound crazier than some of your nightmares.”
She laughed, hearing the edge of hysteria in her voice. “It already seems like that.”
“Okay. Well, where should I start?”
“Those men. Who were they? Why did they want to kill me?”
“I don’t know for certain why they wanted to kill you. As for who they were, they’re called Droon. They’re — well, they’re human, but they’re also aliens.”
“You mean, like, from another planet?”
“I — I don’t understand. How can they be both human and aliens?”
Richard smiled. “This will take some time. It’s quite a story.”
An hour later, Claire’s head was spinning. Destroyed planets, migrating alien spirits, the Earth a battleground between two non-human species that had become human, and herself somehow caught right in the middle of it.
“Richard, this is a lot to take in. You sound crazier than I am.”
“I told you, you’re not mentally ill. You don’t have true bipolar disorder, which is a chemical imbalance in the brain. You have the symptoms, but not the real disease. You’re magical. That may be why the Droon tried to kill you, although I don’t know that for certain.”
“You killed those men.”
“They would have killed you if we hadn’t.”
“Are you magical, too?”
“Oh, yes. Our entire order is, although most of us haven’t received the kind of training that my chapter has.”
“Your order. What is that exactly?”
“We’re called the Scourge of God. And that’s another long story.”
Claire shook her head. “I have plenty of time. Go ahead. I’m ready for some more crazy.”
She got it in the form of Medieval Christian assassins, a sorcerous secret society, and a split in the ranks between old-style hard-liners like fundamentalists on crack, and modernizers who somehow still thought of themselves as part of the same group.
“You’re one of the modernizers.”
“Of course. That’s true in many ways. We’re a religious order, a Christian order.”
“I’m sort of a Buddhist myself.”
“I know that.” He smiled. “One of the more traditional Scourge members would think you were destined to Hell and would try to save your soul out of misguided compassion.”
She laughed. “Christians do tend to do that.”
“Yes. As you can imagine, there’s a sharp divide between the two sides of the order. We don’t even communicate much now. The hard-liners consider me a heretic.”
She nodded. “I can see why they would. How did you just happen to be there to rescue me, Richard?”
“That didn’t just happen, Claire. We’ve been watching those Droon. In the past month, they’ve killed three other people. We couldn’t see any connection between them, but now I’m wondering if they might all have been magically talented. I know for certain one of them was. Anyway, we were watching them, they gathered for another killing, and we decided to stop them. It happened to be you we saved, and I’m glad of that.”
“Claire, the Droon don’t give up easily. There were four of them in that group and one of them is still alive, unless you killed him.”
“No. I cracked his head on a wall but I don’t think it was fatal.”
“Well, then their failure will be reported and the Droon will investigate it, and they’ll keep trying to find you and kill you.”
“What can we do?”
“What I think we should do is get you to a safe place. But that won’t be easy. There’s only one place that’s truly safe from them. The Andol have a secret fortress that the Droon can’t break into. Mike Cambridge is there. He’s the Order Master of the modernist wing of the Scourge. So is Amanda, the Andol leader. It’s called the Birds’ Nest. If we can get you there, you’ll be safe, and the Andol can figure out what to do.”
“I’d have to quit school. But I guess I have to do that anyway. All right. Sounds good to me.”
“There’s only one problem. It’s in Wyoming. Getting there may not be easy, with you injured and the Droon out for your blood. But I think we have to try, not just for you, but because I have a suspicion about what the Droon are doing and the Andol need to know about it.”
“What do you think they’re doing?”
“The Andol have started reaching out to people with magical talent, trying to recruit humans into an army. See, their biggest problem is that they’re outnumbered. So the only way they can win this struggle —”
“Wait a minute. You haven’t explained why you’re on the side of the Andol.”
Richard nodded. “The Andol are good people. The Droon are horrible. If they win this struggle, the human race will be genetically engineered to be slaves. Any of us could be seized by any of them and tortured to death over a period of years. The Droon like to do that. So in a way, when Osgood called them demons, he was right. They do act like demons.”
Claire shuddered. “One of them said I was lucky, that they couldn’t take chances with me, so it would take me seconds to die instead of years. I guess that’s what he meant.”
“That’s what he meant.”
“All right, I guess I understand why you’re on the Andol’s side. The enemy of my enemy and all that.”
“Partly. As I was saying, I think the Droon may be targeting magically-talented humans for assassination. Any of you they kill is a potential recruit denied to the Andol. That will need to be countered, if it can be. And I sure hope it can.”
Claire nodded. “So we go to Wyoming?”
“All right. Wyoming it is.”
Continue to Chapter Two